School mask mandates lifted in more states, L.A. may expand remote learning for students who won't get COVID vaccine

·7 min read
A masked student in heavy outerwear and backpack walks through snow past a sign recommending the use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On the school wall, a sign reads:
A student arrives wearing a mask at Kozminski Community Academy in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood on Feb. 7. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Growing number of states lift mask mandates in schools

This week saw a shift among a number of blue-leaning states, a majority of which are led by Democrat governors, to lift mask mandates in schools. The following have announced plans to lift state-wide school mask mandates:

The news coincides with a rapid drop in COVID-19 cases across the country. While COVID-19 cases are still high, with 202,001 new cases reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, they're distinctly lower than they were at the height of the wave of Omicron infections, when cases clocked in at as many as 391,096 daily.

It's important to note, though, that the CDC still recommends universal masking in schools as a way of preventing COVID-19 transmission.

While masking has been recommended in schools for more than a year, experts say that it may be time to end the mandates. "As children are spared the severe consequences of disease and there is widespread availability of vaccines for almost all school-age children, I do not think that a perpetual state of masking is necessary," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "Schools need to develop off-ramps immediately."

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that this should encourage parents to vaccinate their children. "Although cases are falling everywhere, most locales are still at a high transmission level," he says. "So, if your child is not vaccinated, there remains an increased risk of getting infected. Therefore, wearing a mask until your area gets to a lower level of transmission is prudent."

If your child is fully vaccinated and has had a booster (if eligible), Russo says that the "personal risk is low" of serious illness from contracting COVID-19 if children go to school without a mask. However, he recommends that parents consider the rest of their household. "If someone in the household is unvaccinated, then continued mask use is a good strategy, since our vaccines are not perfect in protecting against infection from Omicron, and even the fully vaccinated child could bring the virus into your home," he says.

Colorado researchers team up with middle schoolers to test out new masks

Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health recruited a team of local middle schoolers to help test out face masks that can detect asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. The masks, which were developed by the University of Leicester in the U.K., contain a special 3D-printed strip that can trap exhaled microbes over a period of at least 30 minutes while the mask is being worn.

About a third of students and staff at Aurora Science & Tech Middle School are participating in the study, wearing the masks from the morning until lunchtime, May Chu, an epidemiology professor at the Colorado School of Public Health who works on the study, tells Yahoo Life. In exchange, the school is getting help with its COVID-19 testing program, for which it previously had "no bandwidth."

"Because we were already there to conduct mask research, we combined research and surveillance testing," Chu explains.

She adds that there has been a "positive reception" from students, families and staff. "Our enrollment has increased steadily each week, and students have told us they are glad to be contributing to the science of learning what causes asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2," she says. The process of getting samples is fast — just five minutes — and includes students giving a nasal swab during lunch, in addition to wearing their masks. Swabs are sent to a testing lab and results come back in four hours, allowing the school to make quick decisions. "Parents tell us they are relieved that they know the situation at school," Chu says.

Chu says the team of researchers is "making headway" in understanding the difference between the level of infection in the nose and whether the air you breathe out might infect others.

Russo calls the masks an "interesting concept," noting that they "may have value during times when masks are being used in schools." He points out, though, that mask usage is being phased out at schools across the country as Omicron cases drop. "I anticipate we will be able to get rid of masks in schools in the near future, so testing at home or elsewhere would be a more pragmatic means for surveillance when schools are in maskless mode," he says.

Still, Adalja says that "improving diagnostic and detection technology is an important task, even if these types of devices aren’t something to be universally deployed." She argues that this will foster further innovation that could possibly be applied to other infections, such as tuberculosis.

L.A. schools consider remote learning options for students who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Students ages 12 and up who attend school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest district in the U.S., are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the start of the fall 2022 school year. But a school board meeting on Tuesday revealed that tens of thousands of students are not yet vaccinated, prompting officials to consider launching up to six new online schools next year to help teach these students.

The district currently has an independent study program called City of Angels that has more than 16,000 students enrolled this year (it typically serves about 1,800). "Enrolling all 16,000-plus students at City of Angels was a necessity for the 2021-2022 school year, since City of Angels is Los Angeles Unified's only school currently set up to provide long-term independent study," reads a school board report released this week.

It goes on to suggest an alternative. "For the 2022-2023 school year and beyond, Los Angeles Unified has an opportunity to pave a new path for TK-12 online learning," the report continues. "By creating up to six new online schools, students whose parents choose the independent study option will have a variety of quality online school options, with the opportunity to select an option that matches their interests."

Under the proposed plan, every online school would have a principal, three assistant principals, two academic counselors and dedicated staff members. Each online school would cost the district about $2.7 million a year and would service about 2,500 students.

When contacted for comment, a LAUSD spokesperson referred Yahoo Life to the meeting and pointed out that there has been a "robust conversation" around the idea of creating remote schools.

While the concept is still being debated, experts say this seems extreme for students. "The pandemic has taught us the importance of in-person learning — both for their education, but importantly their social development and mental health," Russo says. "Remote learning should be an option of last resort. Having the unvaccinated wear a mask while in school would seem to be a better option, particularly when the community burden of disease is at low levels."

New Hampshire may make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for in-person learning

Lawmakers in New Hampshire are considering adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandatory vaccinations for students in state public schools. The bill, called HB1633, is currently being debated and would require COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 and college students in the state.

The bill would only apply to age groups that have been given full approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is currently those of age 16 and up.

Right now, California, the District of Columbia, Louisiana and New York City have some form of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students.

Adalja expects more states to be added to the list as FDA approval for younger age groups is granted. "I think many school districts will add COVID vaccination to their school entry requirement," he says. "This will be handled more like measles and other vaccines."

Russo agrees. "I hope the COVID vaccine will become mandatory to attend school, since this is likely the only means to achieve the high level of vaccination needed to keep our students, staff, and teachers optimally safe," he says. "Further, a high level of vaccination in children will decrease transmission and benefit the community at large, particularly those that are more vulnerable."

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